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AU Alumna Named a Gates Cambridge Scholar

Ifeanyi Umunna, SPA/BA ’23, was awarded a fully-funded scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in criminology this fall at the University of Cambridge.

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Ifeanyi Umunna, SPA/BA ’23, screamed.

The shriek—which frightened a nearby intern—was incongruent with the good news Umunna had just opened in her email inbox as she worked on an otherwise quiet afternoon at Representative Stephen Lynch’s (D-MA) district office in Boston. But it was all she could muster before she fell speechless.

Umunna had just learned that she earned a prestigious 2024 Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the scholarship has since 2001 fully funded graduate degrees at the University of Cambridge for more than 2,000 students from over 100 countries. In October, Umunna will begin pursuing a master of philosophy in criminology at Cambridge, the world’s third-oldest university in continuous operation. The Masters scholarships are more selective than PhDs, as only one third of slots are slated for Masters study. 

“I wasn’t sure how to articulate what just happened,” said Umunna, who has worked as a staff assistant for Lynch since graduating last year from AU. “It is such a big deal that I had been praying [about] for so long.”

On February 27, that big news became public. One of 80 scholars in this year’s cohort, including 26 from the US, Umunna is the second AU alumni to receive the honor, which is awarded to students who exemplify outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential, and a commitment to improving the lives of others. She was mentored by AU’s Office of Merit Awards (OMA) and a dedicated AU faculty committee who works with applicants each year.

While fewer AU students typically apply for Gates Cambridge than the comparable Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, OMA associate director Bushra Asif said Umunna’s success sets an example for future Eagle applicants to follow.

“It shows the potential AU students have,” said Asif, who was Umunna’s primary advisor throughout the process. “They are making a difference—not just in their communities, but in the world.”

Umunna knew from the time she was young that she wanted to attend Cambridge. Starting in January 2023, OMA mentored her throughout the scholarship application process, helping her develop writing materials, prepare for interviews, and learn how to best share her story. 

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Umunna studied political science and minored in African American studies at AU. While on campus, she served in leadership roles within the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, the Black Student Union, Black Affinity Housing, and the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics.

Umunna also regularly volunteered to help unhoused people in DC and worked for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Those experiences demonstrated her passion for criminal justice reform, particularly for Black and immigrant communities.

To prepare for a future career as a public defender—which she hopes will one day lead to public office—Umunna will study recidivism at Cambridge to better understand why the US has some of the highest rates of reimprisonment across the globe.

“I know that I’ve worked really hard to get to this point,” she said. “I also really want to take full advantage of the experience of being a student at Cambridge, which is something that a lot of people fight tooth and nail for. I just see it as a duty to make the most of it, so that I can come back to my community and serve them.”